Thursday, December 12, 2019

Race Report: Vienna City Marathon

Vienna had been in my calendar for awhile now; I had visited in 2006 during a monthlong trip along the rails through the whole continent, where we hit up ten countries, one of the last being Austria. Chalking it up to vacation fatigue, we spent only a couple days in Vienna, and can remember being a bit underwhelmed by the Austrian capital. This was an opportunity to revisit this destination and give it a second chance - perhaps take in the opulence of the Hapsburg Dynasty through the palaces and gardens of the royals that once ruled this area.

My Austrian Airlines plane to Vienna!
I left New York after work on a Virgin Atlantic flight that took me overnight to London, then had an easy connection to Vienna on Austrian Airlines.  We arrived shortly after noon, and I was quickly off the plane and through the efficient immigration area, easily finding my way down to the train station a level below the airport. There was a bit of a line of people trying to figure out how to utilize the kiosks to purchase tickets, but once I got one, I got onto the next train that could take me directly to the expo at the Marx Halle south of the city centre in the district of Landstraße. The expo was very busy, but I managed to get my bibs for both the 10K and Marathon fairly quickly, then made my rounds around the expo, hitting up a few of the booths advertising other European races, including a couple I had already run - Malta and Swiss City.  With a few hours left to go before I needed to be at the start of the 10K in Prater Park, I contacted my friend Pål and his wife Tone, my Norwegian friends who were also here for the race.  They were back at their hotel near Stephansplatz and agreed to meet with me, so I could drop off my bags at their hotel while I ran the race, since I hadn't had time to check into my Airbnb.

It was easy to get to them via the U-Bahn, and I found them just outside of the imposing St. Stephen's Cathedral, the Roman Catholic church with its multi-coloured tile roof that dominates the skyline in the center of Vienna.  We got to hang out for a bit at their hotel, and I got to leave my bags with their concierge, before I set off for my race, and they went out to enjoy a bite to eat. I headed out to Prater Park, and easily found the startline of the 10K, following the loads of people heading in the direction of the Hauptallee and the start archway, situated in front of the Restaurant Meierei.

Startline for the Saturday races
A few races were occurring this Saturday afternoon - the Youth Run and Home Run, 5Ks for ages 18 and under, and one for the adults - as well as the 10K.  It was fun getting to watch the kids get their races started, heading north along the Hauptallee, while the rest of us about to run the 10K watched.  When we finally got onto the road, we lined up in the other direction, as our route was headed south. I positioned myself in the second wave, and shortly after 5:30, we were off.

The course was nice and flat along the Hauptallee, considered not only Vienna's, but Austria’s most popular running location. Surrounded on both sides by 2,500 horse chestnut trees, the Hauptallee is a beautiful treelined street stretching some 4.5 kilometers long. It comes as no surprise that this was the route that would be chosen for Eliud Kipchoge's storied INEOS 1:59 Challenge that would occur later in 2019. For the 10K, we were only running down it for one mile, before turning left onto Meireistraße for a short out and back that would take us back along Stadionallee to Rustenschacherallee, skirting the edge of the park, before returning to the Hauptallee via Rotundenallee, but now heading northward.  We passed back through the start arch, which conveniently marked the 5K point of the race - which made sense since the 5K runners began here, and we would follow their route to the finish line all the way near the Rathaus and Burgtheater on the Ringstraße in the city centre. After curving around to the Franzensbrücke, running into Landstraße, we found our way running alongside the Vienna River, then crossing the Stubenbrücke onto the roads that bordered the Stadtpark.  We followed the Ringstraße all the way to the finish, where I crossed in 56:17. I felt really good, clocking in a fast and solid pace, registering an average just over 9 minutes per mile, which made me feel SUPER confident for the following morning's marathon.

After the race, I went back to Stephansplatz to pick up my bags from Pål and Tone's hotel, and of course, feeling super hungry after the race, made my way over to a nearby spot for dinner.  On my mind was wienerschnitzel, one of the best known specialties of Viennese cuisine, and one of the national dishes of Austria.   Dinner was at Wienerwald, a franchised fast-food restaurant that's actually based in Germany, but it didn't matter to me... I was starving!

I later checked into my Airbnb, which was conveniently located about a ten minute walk behind the Rathausplatz, where the race's finish line was located. Night had fallen in Vienna, and I was starting to get quite tired from a very long day that included my overnight travel from NYC, but nevertheless, I still went back into Stephensplatz, eventually meeting up with Bryan and Walt from Ireland, who I had gotten in contact with over Facebook as Bryan was a member of Frontrunners Dublin.  We ended up at 1516 Brewing Company for some drinks, before I decided to head home and get some sleep.

With Pal and Bryan at the start
The race began at 9am, so I was up at 6:30 to get myself dressed and found the bathroom at my Airbnb already occupied by one of the other guests in the other bedrooms.  I eventually was able to get in around 7:15 for a quick shower and was out the door just after 7:30 to take the U-Bahn to the race start across the Danube in the neighborhood of Kaisermühlen in the Donaustadt district, right in front of the Vienna International Centre, the campus and building complex hosting the United Nations Office at Vienna.  It was a quick less than half hour trip, and I had ample time hanging out before runners started to assemble in the "blocks."  The excitement was palpable; while it was chilly (roughly 49°), the sun was out, and would only get warmer today.  While we still had an hour to go, I decided to head over near my start block, Block 4, which was situated near the lobby of the Park Inn.  I used it as a meeting point for Pål to find me, and take a quick picture before he headed off to his start block. It just so happened I found Bryan as well, so we took a quick photo before preparing for the race.

The startline area
The blocks were getting filled quickly; after a few announcements in German, the Austrian National Anthem being played, and a flubbed audience participation clapping sequence that noone seemed to get right to Queen's "Radio Ga Ga" (I guess nobody saw Live Aid or the recent Bohemian Rhapsody movie?) the race began, and the elites made their way out of the start blocks to the tune of Johann Strauss' "The Blue Danube," a quite unique way to start off the race, but fitting for being the start of a race in the Austrian capital, with its classical music legacy.  And also since in the first mile, runners would actually be crossing the Danube, Europe's second longest river.

Crossing the Reichsbrucke
Our start block would go off about 15 minutes later, and we ran along Wagramer Straße southwestward making our way across the span of the Reichsbrücke over the Danube River.  Along the way, I made some small talk with a couple South Africans, proudly wearing their flag colors on their singlets, as I told them how excited I was to head to their country in a couple weeks for the Two Oceans Marathon.  I would be playing leapfrog with one of them for much of the race.  The span of the bridge began to make its way downhill into the district of Leopoldstadt, as we were treated to magnificent views of the St. Francis of Assisi Church, a Basilica-style Catholic church built at the turn of the 20th century to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria. We made our way to the western bank of the river onto Lassallestraße, hitting the first mile in 9:30, while runners continued to roll down the bridge in waves.
Some of the more modern office buildings on our way from the start
Destination: Praterstern.
Riesenrad ferris wheel
We continued down this street heading toward a building with a big "ÖBB" on it, housing the Wien Praterstern railway station, at the end of the avenue.  The Österreichische Bundesbahnen (ÖBB) is Austria's federal railway, owned by the government and manages and operates passenger and freight services in the country.  We came to a big roundabout, and those from the north side of the divided avenue went around the roundabout counterclockwise, while we went clockwise; both sides converged on the Hauptallee. We were now in the Wiener Prater, a large, nearly 1500 acre public park in Leopoldstadt, and the Hauptallee bisects the park.  To our left was the Wurstelprater, an amuseument park that has been open to the public since 1766.  Rising prominently amongst the attractions in the park is the Wiener Riesenrad, a Ferris wheel that from 1920 until 1985 was the world's tallest Ferris wheel and one of Vienna's most popular tourist attractions.  While it was still fairly early on - not even two miles in yet - we'd definitely get more time on it during this race, as we'd be passing through this area not once; not twice - but three times today - the next time coming at 17 mile mark for an extended out-and-back! 

Running along the Schüttelstraße
We continued on down partially down the Hauptallee, an area with many spectators cheering runners on, until reaching the 5K mark, where we turned right onto Stadionallee, running the curvilinear road to the Donaukanal or “Danube Canal,” a branch of the Danube that runs right through the Vienna city centre. We ran alongside the Donaukanal’s eastern shore on Schüttelstraße. This street gave way to Untere Donaustraße, before we turned left over the Aspernbrücke in the shadow of the UNIQA Tower, an area we’d be revisiting in another 11 miles.

Now in the Innere Stadt, the central district of Vienna, we began to run along Stubenring, part of Vienna’s famous Ring Road, the Ringstraße. We ran past the Ludwig Baumann designed War Ministry Building built in 1913 (now officially known as the Regierungsgebäude and is used as seat of the Minister for Economy, the Minister for Social Affairs and the Minister for Agriculture and Environment); and at the 10K mark, past the 28 acre Stadtpark, with its opulent Kursalon Building, an Italian Renaissance style music hall.
One of the statues along the Stubenring
The road curved slightly as we made our way along Kärntner Ring and past the beautiful facade of the Wien Staatsoper, or Vienna State Opera House. We then turned to follow the Wienzeile on an eastbound direction, running out toward Schönbrunn Palace. Before leaving the city center, we ran by the Secession Building, an art museum distinct with its stylized gold leaf dome, housing works of artists from the Vienna Secession movement, a group of rebel artists who broke apart from the long-established traditional fine art institution. We also ran by the Naschmarkt, a popular food and produce market open during the day every day except Sunday. We also ran by the Cafe Savoy, a popular coffee shop and one of the most beautiful cafes in the city.
Passing by the Seccession Building
The Wienzeile runs through the districts of Mariahilf and Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus; it follows the course of the Vienna River, which has a riverbed made almost entirely of concrete (installed at the turn of the 20th century) within the city limits, in order to stop flooding and spread of disease at the time. At the same time, a railway part of the Vienna U-Bahn system was also built, making use of the concrete river bed and is only separated from the river by a wall. As we ran along the Wienziele, we could periodically hear the trains speed by, echoing from the area below.

Running along Wienziele
It was a bit monotonous as we ran along this stretch of the course, an area roughly 5k long. Rather uniquely, the first relay point for relay runners was here, just as we began to pass by the Auer-Welsbach-Park, nearly 15.5 kilometers into the race.  It seems the four relay runners would run legs of different legs - and the first runner would run the longest.  Before long, we were turning right onto Schloßallee, which happened to be the road right in front of the imperial palace of Schönbrunn. As I was deep into my run, I barely even noticed we had passed by the site of the palace, since it was behind us!

Mariahilfer Straße
I had slowed significantly by the 10 mile mark, nearly reaching a 12 minute mile, after consistently running just over 10 minute miles for the last five; it was probably because I was needing some electrolytes - the aid stations had been spread out so far apart in these early miles, and I was feeling a bit tired by that point.  We then ran a short 1/4 mile section of the course along Schloßsallee, before turning right onto Mariahilfer Straße and our easterly run back toward Vienna's city centre. We passed the Vienna Technical Museum (Technisches Museum Wien), a museum devoted to technology and sciences in a building that just celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.  It would be a gradual climb as we ran along the street, passing by Vienna's western train station (Wien Westbahnhof) trying to not trip over our feet on the metal tram tracks that vary up the terrain for us runners.

It wouldn't be until we reached the 12th mile that we'd start to run downhill, running down a section of Mariahilfer Straße that was covered in dark grey, wide bricks and is considered Austria’s most popular shopping street. There were many spectators along this section of the course, and having them there gave me an added burst of energy. We ran past the Baroque parish church of Mariahilf, with its copper towers, covered in a layer of distinctive green patina, as barricades began to separate runners into half marathoners heading straight ahead toward the finish line and marathoners turning left as we passed the massive MusueumsQuartier complex.

The road was wide and quite a bit less crowded once we turned left onto Museumsplatz and past the MuseumsQuartier, which houses several museums such as the Leopold Museum and the MUMOK (Museum of Modern Art Ludwig Foundation Vienna), the Kunsthalle Wien, and the Architekturzentrum Wien.  To our right was the Maria-Theresien-Platz, a large public square with the identical buildings of the Naturhistorisches Museum (Natural History Museum) and the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) facing each other.  The lack of hydration stations in the first half of the course caused me to take an "unusually early" GU, at the 12 mile mark, some three miles earlier than I normally do. We continued along Landesgerichtesstraße, a road that paralleled the Ringstrasse as we headed north, past the backside of the Rathaus - past the street where my Airbnb was on - reaching the halfway point for the marathon in 2:18:38, before turning right onto Universitätsstraße, past the beautiful neo-gothic spires of the Votivkirche and the campus of the Universität Wien. Here, we also ran past the second relay handover station, the second relay runners having finished their 6 km segment, and the third relay runners beginning a 9.3 km segment. We were now in the trendy and densely populated Alsergrund district, just north of the Innere Stadt, heading north along Liechtensteinstraße.

As we continued north along this street, to our right was the Gartenpalais Liechtenstein, where a private collection of masterpieces from the early Renaissance to the High Baroque era, owned by the Princely Family of Liechtenstein, are displayed. The palace is on the grounds of a 12.4 acre garden, all largely hidden behind high privacy fences, so unfortunately, all we were treated to were the tops of trees and the small glimpses of the 319 year old building. We turned right onto Alserbachstraße, the northernmost part of our course, as trams ran up and down the street next to us. The Wien Franz-Josefs-Bahnhof, a regional train station hub, with a glassed-in office structure on the floors above. Soon we were crossing over the Donaukanal along the Friedensbrücke, then ran southward along Brigittenauer Lände, merging onto the Obere Donaustraße, experiencing the surprisingly windiest part of the race, as we ran alongside the canal. Just past the 26 km mark, we were back at the UNIQA tower we had run by at the 9 km mark of the race, but this time, turned left onto Aspernbrückengasse,  veering right onto Praterstraße as we made a straightaway toward the Praterstern station, our second time in this race.
The Praterstraßeon our way back to the Hauptallee
Out and back along Hauptallee
After curving around the road that encircled the station, we ended up back on the Prater Hauptallee, now 17 miles and just over three hours into the race. We would run along the Hauptallee for the next 1.5 miles, and muscle memory, having run this road already now three times before (counting the previous day's out-and-back during the 10k), put me into the zone to try to maintain a consistent pace on this relatively flat part of the course. Along the way, I caught up with my friend Dan from Indiana, and we ran together for a short period of time before I ended up overtaking him.

Along Stadionallee
(Photo by Hideki Kinoshita)
At Meiereistraße, we turned left, seemingly mimicking the out-and-back we had taken during the 10k course the day before, however this time, we were running past the Ernst-Happel-Stadion, Austria's largest stadium and home to the Austrian national football team, right up to a turnaround point where the Wiener Linien tracks for the U2 line at Stadion station passed overhead.  I passed by my friend Kino at this point, who wasn't too far in front of Dan.  The out and back took us back to the Hauptallee, and past the third (and last) relay handover point, located in the parking lot of the stadium.  We turned left back onto the Hauptallee (where eventually, we would hit mile 20) and were roughly two kilometres from the Lusthaus, a historic summer hunting lodge that was first built in 1538 when the Prater was still a hunting ground.  Once serving as the location for large celebrations and festivities (such as the imperial celebration to mark the first anniversary of the Battle of Leipzig, in which Napoleon was defeated), the Lusthaus now houses a coffeehouse and restaurant and serves as the easternmost point of the marathon course.

Caught along the Hauptallee
(Photo by Hideki Kinoshita)
Once we rounded the Lusthaus, we made our way back up the Hauptallee toward Stadionallee, where I saw both Kino and Dan on the out-and-back.  We turned left, now 35 km into the race, then turned onto Rustenschacherallee, a peaceful road that cut through the most pastoral part of the park, and an area I had run through during the previous day's 10K.  We continued on north, and eventually found ourselves with only 3 miles to the finish.  My mile splits had slowed down significantly at this point, but I was still determined to finish under 5 hours.  Totally doable, after hitting 23 miles in 4:13:11.

My customary 40K photo!
We crossed over the Franzensbrücke into the northern tip of the Landstraße district, now emulating the final two miles of the Saturday 10K. Battling my fatigue, I made my way down Radetzkystraße, then followed the Vordere Zollamtsstraße alongside the Vienna River. We crossed the Stubenbrücke, passing by the four rather creepy looking "Lemurenköpfe," or lemur heads, that are exhibited on the pylons of the bridge.  We then found ourselves back on the Ringstraße, which we'd follow all the way to the finish line, dodging the trampolines, along the way.  As the finish in front of the Burgtheater loomed near, we ran our last few hundred meters over the gold "carpet" until we crossed the finish line.  I crossed in 4:56:33, feeling happy to have completed the race under my 5 hour goal time.  My second half was run in 2:37:55.  I was thrilled to receive my finisher medal for this race - a star shaped golden medal, with a single Swarovski crystal in it -- Swarovski being the 124 year old famous Austrian producer of glass
Kino and Dan didn't finish long after me, so we snapped a quick photo.
Victory Headstand in front of the Rathaus.. the part not under construction.
Globetrotter photo!
After the race, I waited up for Kino and Dan, who I imagined weren't too far behind me.  We posed for several finish line photos, and they helped me with taking my customary victory headstand photo, which we took with part of the Rathaus in the background. After meeting a fellow Globetrotter, Donald from Germany, we went our separate ways, as I had a quick and easy walk to my Airbnb barely five minutes away.

The Hofburg
Kino invited me out for a celebratory dinner with his roommates for the weekend at a local Austrian brewery near his hotel, so with 6:45pm as my goal time to meet them, I had enough time to check out the sites. I quickly cleaned up and got dressed and back out into the city for some tourism time! I first passed by the Hofburg, the massive former principal imperial palace of the Habsburgs and now the official residence and workplace of the President of Austria. But ultimately, The Prunksaal (State Hall) of the Austrian National Library, was my main destination... having been told it was a must see, and could be done pretty quickly. The Prunksaal is one of the most beautiful historic library halls in the world. Emperor Charles VI commissioned the construction of this jewel of secular Baroque architecture for his Court Library. The Hall was designed by famous Court architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and was built between 1723 and 1726 by his son Joseph Emanuel. Today the State Hall is home to around 200,000 books, dating from 1501 to 1850.
Beautiful interior of the Prunksaal
Attractions inside the Globe Museum
Also part of the library are two museums housed in the Palais Mollard, about 400 meters up Herrengasse, past the Michaelerplatz. These two museums were of great interest to me, since I'm such a big geography and language buff. It was 5pm by then, and the museums close promptly at 6, so I had half an hour each to check out these sites.  Thankfully it was enough time... the Esperanto Museum is a museum for the constructed language of Esperanto, as well as other constructed languages, founded in 1927. Today, it is a museum, library, documentation center, and archive. It accommodates the largest collection of constructed languages in the world and a linguistic research library for language planning... which even includes Klingon from the Star Trek world! The Globe Museum opened in 1956, and is the only public museum in the world devoted to globes, being three-dimensional models of Earth or other celestial bodies, or spherical representations of the celestial sphere.

Lunch at Salm Brau
With 45 minutes to go to meet them, I walked down to the brewery, Salm Bräu, a very popular brewery that can sometimes have a very long wait time for a table.  Luckily I got there just in time to grab a table for us, since when Kino and his friends Matt and Alex arrived, there was a line out the door!  Amongst the four of us, we enjoyed a few delicious weissbeers, traditional Austrian wiener schnitzel, Austrian goulash, and for me - stelze, or ham haunch, accompanied with bread dumpling (that looked more like a matzoh ball at first glance!), tasty mustard and some very strong horseradish, and a unique side dish of beer cabbage (it looked strange, but tasted fine!)  We finished off the meal with dessert - which Austria does very well - an incredible apfelstrudel with whipped cream. We then walked over to 1516 Brewing Company just up the street for another beer - this time trying an interesting Kimchi spiced sour porter that interesting didn't taste like kimchi at all.  Before leaving to take the tram back to my Airbnb, we made plans to meet up the following morning to check out the Schönbrunn Palace grounds together.

I checked out of my Airbnb fairly early after another morning of competing for the bathroom with the two other Airbnb guests, packed up and left my keys as directed on the dining table in the bedroom.  I took the train down to the Vienna State Opera House, touring the beautiful building which is the world’s largest repertoire theatre. From the foyer, we took the grand staircase to the state rooms and viewed the empty 2,284 seat horseshoe-shaped auditorium space, catching a look at the stage.  While most of the building was reconstructed in 1955 after being destroyed in World War II, the facade is part of the original structure that has been preserved since 1869. The facades are decorated in Renaissance-style arches, and the veranda on the Ring Road side emphasizes the public character of the building.

Schonbrunn Palace
I met up with Kino, Matt, and Alex, having breakfast at their hotel and leaving my bags there, before we set out to to Schönbrunn Palace, the main summer residence of the Habsburg rulers. The 1,441-room Baroque palace is one of the most important architectural, cultural, and historical monuments in the country, and Vienna's most popular tourist destination, attended by nearly 4,000,000 visitors each year. The history of the palace and its vast gardens spans over 300 years, reflecting the changing tastes, interests, and aspirations of successive Habsburg monarchs. We purchased a Classic Pass ticket, which included admission into the palace (the 40 room “Grand Tour,” which includes not only the state rooms and private apartments of Franz Joseph and Sisi, but also the precious 18th-century interiors from the time of Maria Theresia), the adjoining Privy Garden and Orangery, the Maze, and the Gloriette viewing terrace.

As the tickets are timed, we had about half an hour to preview the gardens at Schönbrunn. The gardens, and in particular the Great Parterre, are massive - spanning some 460 acres. We only had time to check out the hedge maze that was laid out around 1720.  Consisting of paths between tall, narrow hedges with dead-ends and false turns of a classic maze, it was intended to offer an inviting setting for a gentle stroll.  We decided to tackle this “activity," with great fun, trying to get to the viewing platform in the center of the maze, before heading to the palace.

The majestic Great Gallery
Once inside, we were given the option to use the audio guided tour, free of charge.  But because I was on a limited time schedule, needing to get back to the hotel to get my bags, I opted to use their written guide to get around. The palace itself was extraordinary. I couldn't believe how incredibly opulent and well-maintained the rooms were.  The paths to get around were intensely crowded, as tour groups with guides were leading their massive hordes of people through, but I managed to squeeze by. It was overwhelming, but some of my favorite rooms included the great hall and its beautiful ceiling paintings, the Porcelain room and its handpainted blue and white wood panelling (intended to imitate porcelain and chinoiserie), and the Millions room and its precious wood panelling.
The gorgeous Millions Room - my favorite

Overlooking the side gardens
In addition to visiting the Privy Garden and Orangery located adjacent to the palace, the garden axis points towards a 60-metre-high (200 ft) hill, which since 1775 has been crowned by the Gloriette, the largest and probably best-known structure of its kind - a building erected in a garden that is elevated with respect to the surroundings. The Schönbrunn Gloriette was destroyed in World War II, but had already been restored by 1947, and was restored again in 1995, offering panoramic views of Vienna.  I went all the way up to the top of the Gloriette, a steep hike with several switchbacks, but it was worth it for the gorgeous views of the palace grounds from above.  After taking it all in, I headed back down, eventually finding Kino, Matt, and Alex milling around; with me on a strict time clock, I said my goodbyes and headed back to their hotel to retrieve my bag and head off to the airport.

Me and my Swarovski crystal
studded medal
Unfortunately, my flight out of Vienna was a bit late, and then when we landed in London, we ended up sitting on the tarmac for some additional time, which ate into my layover.  It was extremely close by the time I deplaned and headed to a shuttle bus to the other terminal, and unfortunately upon arriving got caught up in a security line, eventually missing my flight home to the US.  I ended up staying an extra night in London, but was able to be rebooked for a flight the following morning. Despite the rough trip home, I was happy to have another country checked off the list, especially at a race I'd been meaning to do for awhile!

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